Abstract

The terrestrial biosphere absorbs about 20% of fossil-fuel CO2 emissions. The overall magnitude of this sink is constrained by the difference between emissions, the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and the ocean sink. However, the land sink is actually composed of two largely counteracting fluxes that are poorly quantified: fluxes from land-use change and CO2 uptake by terrestrial ecosystems. Dynamic global vegetation model simulations suggest that CO2 emissions from land-use change have been substantially underestimated because processes such as tree harvesting and land clearing from shifting cultivation have not been considered. As the overall terrestrial sink is constrained, a larger net flux as a result of land-use change implies that terrestrial uptake of CO2 is also larger, and that terrestrial ecosystems might have greater potential to sequester carbon in the future. Consequently, reforestation projects and efforts to avoid further deforestation could represent important mitigation pathways, with co-benefits for biodiversity. It is unclear whether a larger land carbon sink can be reconciled with our current understanding of terrestrial carbon cycling. Our possible underestimation of the historical residual terrestrial carbon sink adds further uncertainty to our capacity to predict the future of terrestrial carbon uptake and losses.

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Acknowledgements

A.A., A.D.B. and T.A.M.P. acknowledge support from EU FP7 grants LUC4C (grant no. 603542), OPERAS (grant no. 308393), and the Helmholtz Association in its ATMO programme and its impulse and networking fund. M.F., W.L., C.Y. and S.S. were also funded by LUC4C. J.P. and J.E.M.S.N. were supported by the German Research Foundation's Emmy Noether Programme (PO 1751/1-1). E.K. was supported by the Environment Research and Technology Development Fund (ERTDF) (S-10) from the Ministry of the Environment, Japan. E.R. was funded by LUC4C and by the Joint UK DECC/Defra Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme (GA01101). S.Z. has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 647204; QUINCY). B.D.S. is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and FP7 funding through project EMBRACE (282672). P.C. received support from the ERC SyG project IMBALANCE-P: 'Effects of phosphorus limitations on Life, Earth system and Society' grant agreement no. 610028. This is paper number 24 of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research.

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Affiliations

  1. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Deptartment of Atmospheric Environmental Research, Kreuzeckbahnstraße 19, 82467 Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

    • A. Arneth
    • , A. D. Bayer
    •  & T. A. M. Pugh
  2. College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK

    • S. Sitch
  3. Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Bundesstraße 53, 20146 Hamburg, Germany

    • J. Pongratz
    •  & J. E. M. S. Nabel
  4. Department of Life Sciences and Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London, Silwood Park, Ascot SL5 7PY, UK

    • B. D. Stocker
  5. Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zürich, Universitätstrasse 16, 8092 Zürich, Switzerland

    • B. D. Stocker
  6. IPSL — LSCE, CEA CNRS UVSQ, Centre d'Etudes Orme des Merisiers, 91191 Gif sur Yvette France

    • P. Ciais
    • , T. Gasser
    • , W. Li
    • , N. Viovy
    •  & C. Yue
  7. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Biospheric Science Laboratory, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA

    • B. Poulter
    •  & L. Calle
  8. Institut Méditerranéen de Biodiversité et d'Ecologie marine et continentale, Aix-Marseille Université, CNRS, IRD, Avignon Université, Technopôle Arbois-Méditerranée, Bâtiment Villemin, BP 80, 13545 Aix-en-Provence CEDEX 04, France

    • A. Bondeau
  9. Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742, USA

    • L. P. Chini
  10. International Centre for Water Resources and Global Change, hosted by the German Federal Institute of Hydrology. Am Mainzer Tor 1, 56068 Koblenz, Germany

    • M. Fader
  11. College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QE, UK

    • P. Friedlingstein
  12. The Institute of Applied Energy, Minato, Tokyo 105-0003, Japan

    • E. Kato
  13. Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Sölvegatan 12, Lund University, 22362 Lund, Sweden

    • M. Lindeskog
  14. School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences and Birmingham Institute of Forest Research, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK

    • T. A. M. Pugh
  15. Met Office Hadley Centre, FitzRoy Road, Exeter EX1 3PB, UK

    • E. Robertson
  16. Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Hans-Knöll-Straße 07701 Jena, Germany

    • S. Zaehle

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Contributions

A.A., S.S., J.P. and B.D.S. conceived the study. B.P., L.C., L.P.C., A.B., M.F., E.K., J.E.M.S.N., A.D.B., M.L., T.A.M.P., E.R., T.G., N.V., C.Y. and S.Z. made changes to model code and provided simulation results. A.A. and S.S. analysed results. B.D.S., P.C. and W.L. provided Fig. 3. A.A. wrote the first draft, all authors commented on the draft and discussion of results.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to A. Arneth.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2882

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